Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “ships”

Tom’s ships

Tom Needham joins the Navy

Tom was 13 when he joined the navy in 1864, a young Irish boy who had grown up beside the sea on the coast of County Kerry. His father George Needham had at one time been a captain in the Kerry coastguard, and may well have been in the navy himself, since many coastguard officers were recruited from the navy (see the Ballinskelligs website).

I have copies of three letters that Tom wrote home, in 1865, 1866 and 1869 respectively. In the first two he mentions the names of some of the ships on which he served: they were the Egmont, the Narcissus and the Linnet.

But it would seem none of these was the ship he initially joined when he left home in 1864. The only information about his first year at sea comes not from his letters, but from the book he wrote many years later (1900) about his early life: From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land. There he paints a vivid picture of his earliest experiences in the navy, around the British coast:

the bristling guns; the crowds of nimble sailors; the mysteries of swinging, splicing and knotting of ropes; the fine uniforms; the cursing, the activity… I made great progress in all naval studies and gunnery practice; so that when from overcrowding of the ship transfers were to be made, I was among the selected ones. These changes widened my boyish experiences in the hardship of life at sea. First, I passed through the trials of hazing*… Then came the public floggings for slight misdemeanors… For my nimbleness I acquired the name of Deerfoot, and was often drafted to run races with sailors of other school ships… After several short trips around the British coast a selection came to send me, with several others, to a foreign port… (Needham, T. 1900. From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, Chapter 2, “On Shipboard,”). *hazing: to harass with unnecessary or disagreeable tasks, to subject to abusive or humiliating tricks or ridicule.

The foreign port he was sent to appears to have been Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and the first letter I have suggests that it was there that he had spent time aboard the Egmont. He wrote from the Narcissus, a short time later (1865):

I am not aboard of the Egmont, I am aboard of the HMS Narcissus. Did you not get a few letters from me when I was aboard of the Egmont? I wrote two to you and I am wondering why don’t you write to me? Did you get a letter from America yet? I hope the Lord spares me for the next letter. (Letter from Thomas Needham, November 1865)

So what do we know of the Egmont, his first ship after leaving the British Isles?

HMS Egmont, receiving ship, Rio de Janeiro

According to Wikipedia the HMS Egmont was a 74-gun third rate ship of the line which had been launched in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars. It had been the flagship of Rear-Admiral Charles Vinnicombe Penrose in 1814, but once the war with France was over it was apparently laid off, though where, and in what it was engaged, is uncertain; then from 1848 to 1862, according to a website maintained by P Benyon on naval social history, it appears to have been mothballed in Portsmouth. Finally in 1862 the aging Egmont was called back into service, commissioned in Portsmouth at the end of that year as the “Receiving Ship” for Rio de Janeiro.

Receiving ships were usually obsolete or unseaworthy vessels moored at a navy yard and used as accommodation for new recruits or men in transit between stations. Tom, as he said in his book, was “sent to a foreign port,” and it would seem that Egmont was the ship that “received” him, in Rio. How long he spent on the old ship is not mentioned anywhere, but it was long enough to be missing home, and to write to his dear sister Belinda “a few letters” (though those letters have disappeared).

I have not been able to find any pictures online of the Egmont, but another old ship of the line which met a similar fate was the HMS Implacable, of which there are many surviving images. Those pictures give a sense of what the Egmont, Tom’s temporary home in Rio, looked like. The Implacable, also a 74-gun third rate, was built before the Egmont, but lasted into the 1940s, by which time it was the second oldest ship in the Royal Navy, after the Victory. Wikipedia has an account of her history. Here is a picture of her latter days:

So Tom, the young Irish boy, who had “learnt the ropes” sailing around the coastal waters of Ireland and England, found himself, at the age of 14, suddenly on the other side of the Atlantic in the strange and wonderful world of Brazil. He lived aboard a retired veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and would have had daily reminders of those glorious days of sail, as he walked the decks of the old 74. How often, I wonder, did he get ashore, to the streets of Rio? What was it like in the 1860s I wonder? As fascinating as it might have been, Tom was surely thankful when he left the old hulk and moved to the Narcissus, a ship only 5 years old, which headed to sea again to patrol the shores of North America.

The Royal Navy of Victorian Britain

But what, exactly, was the Royal Navy doing in South America? Although between the end of the Crimean War (1856) and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 it was involved in no major conflicts, the British Navy was the largest in the world. Why did Britain need such a massive maritime military presence when there were no wars to fight? And why in South America, so far from its home shores?

The American Civil War (1861-1865) saw naval battles between the north and south, and in Europe the Danish, the Prussians and the Austrians, amongst others, were involved in conflicts at sea. Meanwhile the British were just sailing around patrolling the sea lanes of the world, building a bigger and stronger navy while doing little more than just “show themselves.” Why the need for this massive navy of which our Tom was a young tar?

Ben Wilson, in his recent history of the British Navy, “Empire of the Deep,” describes the years between 1860 and 1899 as an arms race for the major European powers. The British Empire reached to the farthest corners of the globe, and the navy was the force that ensured its peace and security. In the mind of the British, it had to remain that way. Wilson explains:

With power came fear. Britain was dependent as never before on the Navy. In 1846 parliament had abolished protective tariffs on corn, which meant that British farmers had to compete on the world market and labour moved from the countryside to the booming industrial towns. Without imports of food the country would starve. Without control of the seas she would become poor. It was an uncomfortable position to be in – and people were awaking to the fact that Britain and her empire were vulnerable, perhaps more vulnerable than any country on earth…

Unless Britain had a crushing superiority of ships over France, Russia and Germany in northern waters she would lose the security at home that had allowed her to construct a massive empire. But she also needed to be the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean, South Africa, the Indian Ocean, the China Seas and off American waters. Lose any of these and the whole system would unravel. Britain, it was felt, had to be the dominant naval power everywhere or she would lose everything.
(Wilson B, Empire of the Deep, p.503)

So Rio de Janeiro was just one of the many ports around the world that maintained a British Navy presence; in South America and the South Atlantic the British, as elsewhere, were determined to maintain their global dominance.

For Tom the time in Rio marked a transition from the old world to the new. Until then he had been only on sailing ships. But when he left Rio it was aboard the Narcissus, a wooden hulled steam driven screw frigate that in 1864 was just 5 years old. The old sailing ships were gradually being replaced by steamships, even if almost all vessels still carried sails to propel them when there was no ready supply of coal to feed their engines. When Tom joined the Narcissus he left behind the world of sail and entered the world of steam. Ben Wilson writes:

The Royal Navy was in a state of fast evolution. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the fleet contained ships of a variety of ages, performance and speeds. Co-ordinating such a motley fleet was becoming exceptionally hard for the service’s flag officers, many of who were bred to the age of sail. (Wilson B, p.498)

Naval technology was changing rapidly around the world. Some old sailing ships were being modified by the addition of steam engines and the cladding of their wooden hulls with iron – creating the so called ironclads – to improve their speed and armour. Newer steamships started to be built with all-iron hulls, and such vessels saw service in the American Civil War. Wood and sail were gradually being replaced by iron and steam. Traditional broadsides of cannon were being replaced by turrets in which the cannons were placed in rotating towers. The great Age of Sail is said to have officially come to an end in 1862 when at the Battle of Hampton Roads (American Civil War) the steam-powered ironclad CSS Virginia destroyed the sailing ships USS Cumberland and USS Congress (Wikipedia).

HMS Narcissus

The Narcissus was a wooden hulled screw frigate in service from 1859 to 1883. These early screw frigates carried a full sail plan, like the older sailing frigates, but had a steam powered screw propellor for propulsion. The screw propellor was the invention of a Swedish naval captain, John Ericsson, and replaced the older and more vulnerable paddle wheels which were used for a short time on naval ships, but are much better known as the propulsion of the steamers that plied the Mississippi in the nineteenth century. Steamships had a number of advantages over the old sailing ships, including speed, but most significantly the ability to sail against the wind, making them much more manoeuvrable.

A number of pictures of the HMS Narcissus can be found on the Internet, and the following is from the Royal Museums Greenwich website.

HMS Narcissus, PW8141

Tom’s Narcissus was the third ship by this name in the Royal Navy. Records indicate that from April 1865 to May 1866 she was under the command of Captain Colin Andrew Campbell and was the flagship of Rear Admiral Charles Elliot, in service off the south east coast of America. This agrees with Tom’s letter:

I am in the South Coast of America, it’s a fine place in winter, but in summer it is scorching, plenty of every sort of fruit and vegetables there. (Letter from Thomas Needham, November 1865)

Perhaps the ship was patrolling the coast of Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.

How long he remained on the Narcissus is difficult to fathom from Tom’s writings. However, his next letter home, written in August 1866 states that he had moved on to another ship, the Linnet. The Narcissus was based in South America for the three years from May 1866. Perhaps it was again in Rio, the main British naval base in Brazil, in June or July of 1866, that Tom was transferred to his next ship.

HM Gunboat Linnet

August 26, 1866
My dear sister, I hope you are quite well and in good health. I have written two letters to you and have not heard from you yet my dear sister. I should like to hear from you. I am quite well thank God and in good health. I have left the flagship the Narcissus, I am in a gunboat which came out from England lately, her name is the Linnet she is a very nice little ship, I like her very well…

My dear sister, I have seen a good many places since I left the flagship, I have been up the river Plata. I have been close up where they are at war. There is sick and wounded coming into the town every day. There was a steamer came in yesterday full of wounded soldiers and they had on board a dead general which was shot through the heart, did not they kick up a row about him.

According to Wikipedia, HMS Linnet was a Britomart-class steam powered gunboat launched in 1860 and broken up in 1872. It was one of 16 Britomart-class gunboats, which are described in an article which includes a photo of one of these 16 gunboats, the Cherub.

The River Plata is better known as the Rio de la Plata and is a large bay on the eastern coast of South America between Uruguay to the north and Argentina to the south. It lies over 1000km south of Rio de Janeiro, where Tom had probably transferred from the Narcissus to the Linnet. Two major ports lie on the coastline of the Rio de la Plata – Montevideo in Uruguay and Buenos Aires in Argentina.

The war that Tom writes of was the Paraguayan War that was waged from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and the so called Triple Alliance of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. What role Britain played in the war is uncertain and controversial – see the theories on this in the Wikipedia article on the war. Tom was around 15 years old when his ship, the Linnet, was at Rio de la Plata, and it is clear from his letter that the thing that made the deepest impression on him was the steamers full of wounded soldiers daily coming down the river from up country. It was indeed a bloody and humanly costly war for Paraguay, whose population was reduced by almost 60% during the 6 years of war – from some 525,000 to only 221,000. It is said that some 70% of Paraguay’s adult male population died during the conflict, leaving only around 28,000 men in the country when the final shots were fired. Another tragic waste of life.


I have seen a transcript of a third letter written by 18 year old Tom in 1869, apparently just prior to his discharge from the navy. It mentions no ships by name, and indicates that he was thinking about a passage from England to America after his discharge. This is in keeping with the fact that his family, in the years that Tom had been away, had all migrated to America. This third letter is also addressed to his sister Belinda, who must have died around this time, unknown to Tom, as indicated in his book.

The question, of course, arises as to what Tom was doing in the three intervening years between his second and third letters. The answer to that is found in his book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, in which he describes how he was inexplicably and bizarrely set ashore and abandoned far south on the coast of Patagonia by a “wicked captain and his more merciless chief mate.” The background to this is not explained in the book. There is a picture in the book of “the merchant vessel in which I sailed to South America, the captain of which was afterward converted.” Although there is no explanation in the book, the suggestion is therefore that Tom left the navy at some stage after 1866 and joined a merchant vessel.

Tom's ship

The story of what ensued after this extraordinary incident is related in the book, and will be the subject of another blog. Tom, of course, eventually returned to England, and there is no suggestion in his book that he rejoined the navy to do so. However, his 1869 letter casts doubt on this assumption, because it seems to be written from somewhere in Europe, and the way he writes seems to suggest that he is still in the navy – he speaks of his Admiral, and of “paying off.” Furthermore the letter is written to Belinda, but according to the book he had a letter while he was still in South America in which he was informed of Belinda’s passing. Could it be that after this last letter he returned to South America, before eventually finding his way to his family in the USA?

It may be that further letters will come to light which will clarify the events a bit better. But what remains is that for five or six years, from the age of 13 to 19, Tom Needham had some extraordinary experiences at sea and in distant, wild lands, experiences that he would later recall in writing his book, which is the story of a journey from unbelief to faith in a sovereign God. In later life, as a travelling evangelist, he became known as the “sailor preacher.”


Around the world in 180 days

Tourism in the Victorian era was in its early stages of development. Wealthy families in England had been sending their sons and daughters on Grand Tours of Europe for many years to expand their knowledge of the world, but by the middle of the nineteenth century the opportunity for travel, both at home and internationally was no longer limited to the rich. In 1841 Thomas Cook, an English cabinet maker from the Midlands, had an idea and arranged a one day train excursion for 540 temperance leaguers journeying from Leicester to Loughboro. One thing led to another, and

By 1851, he had discovered the business of travel. Cook arranged ocean liner travel and accommodations for 150,000 visitors to the World Exposition in London. The experience opened Cook’s eyes. Foreign travel, which up to that time had been limited to aristocrats, could be made available to the burgeoning middle class, which had money to spend and social aspirations to fulfil. Cook and other steamship agents set themselves up on both sides of the Atlantic, catering to the new tourism. Cook loved to travel, and believed that it should be enjoyed so that the memories would give pleasure for a lifetime. It was his goal to make a trip around the world as easy as a walk around the block, so he started the first travel agency to offer people travel that was free of care. Cook published The Excursionist, the first travel magazine, to inform people about travel destinations and what to expect after arrival… Perhaps his most famous package, the “Cook’s Tour of Europe,” allowed Everyman to take a Grand Tour – a practice hitherto limited to the very wealthy. (Bloyd S, in Orange Coast Magazine, August 1989, accessed on Google Books)

John Christopher Hickson (JCH), my grandmother’s grandfather, may well have been a reader of The Excursionist, which was by the 1890s available in Australia. JCH was a member of the “burgeoning middle class, which had money to spend and social aspirations to fulfil.” An Irish immigrant, he had made a fortune in the timber industry in the far flung colony of New South Wales. In the twenty years after his arrival from Ireland in 1870, his business had gone from strength to strength. He had married a local girl and together they had raised a family of eleven children. He had built a beautiful home in suburban Enfield, and climbed high on the ladder of Sydney society. Like many people in his situation, he dreamed of travel, of seeing the world.

However, in 1893, he was faced with an unexpected and unwelcome dilemma – his twenty year old daughter, Alice, the apple of his eye, had fallen in love with a young migrant recently arrived in Sydney from Ireland, but by John’s judgement, a man without prospects. This was not the future he had imagined for his oldest daughter. The man she had fallen for was Richard (Dick) Byrne, a working class boy from Killarney in County Kerry, very near to where JCH himself had grown up. It seems fairly certain that John knew Dick’s parents before he left Ireland. JCH was determined to prevent Alice from marrying Dick but he was painfully aware that Alice had lost her heart to the charming and handsome Irish lad. Perhaps as he racked his brain for ideas his eyes came to rest on the latest edition of Cook’s travel magazine.


The Excursionist, US edition 1892

I have not seen a copy of The Excursionist from 1893, but I feel certain that the World’s Fair that was held in Chicago that year would have featured prominently. Thomas Cook and Sons had been organising tours to such international extravaganzas since The Great Exhibition – the Crystal Palace Exhibition – had been held in London in 1851. JCH was inspired. Here was something that could satisfy his desire for travel and adventure at the same time as providing a distraction for his lovesick daughter. He would take Alice away to see the World’s Fair, and throw in a trip around the world. It was an offer felt sure Alice would not be able to resist. With a bit of luck Alice would forget Dick Byrne, or at least realize that there was much in life to enjoy that Dick could never provide, being the penniless Irishman that he was. JCH wanted Alice to fall in love with the world, and for that love to displace her love for Dick. Hopefully by the time they were home her priorities in life would have been suitably reordered.

Alice said yes to the trip, which must have seemed wonderfully exciting to her. She knew her father’s agenda, but how she felt about it is uncertain. She was very much in love with Dick Byrne, and felt sure he would wait for her. Did she understand her father’s objections? Did she agree? Did she see a marriage to him as impossible, as much as she loved him? Was she going with her father in order to forget? Or was she stubbornly opposed to her father, but happy to accompany him on this world trip just the same? She was young. There was time to see the world and still marry Dick when she came home. It was possibly a very confusing time for Alice.

Whatever is true of the emotions that were raging in Alice, the records show that John Hickson and his daughter embarked in mid April 1893 on a ship, the Monowai, bound for San Francisco. I wonder if Alice had read Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, published just twenty years earlier? As it turned out, the father and daughter’s journey was closer to a hundred and eighty days – but unlike Phileas Fogg, they were not racing to win a wager. In fact the longer they were away the better as far as her father was concerned. In the preface to John’s book about the journey, called Notes on Travel, he describes the journey as a “hurried trip around the world.” Perhaps the only hurry was to get Alice away from Dick before the inevitable happened.

Notes of travel front page

They sailed from Sydney to Francisco and then crossed North America by train, travelling over the Sierra Nevada mountains and then traversing Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. In Chicago they attended the World Fair before travelling via Niagara to New York and the East Coast, where they did the round of relatives and friends. The voyage from New York to Ireland on the Germanic took eight days, arriving at Queenstown, near Cork, on the south coast on 13th July. They then spent just over a month in Kerry, where John had grown up. After Ireland they travelled to Scotland and then south to London, before embarking on another ship, the Ophir, to make the return voyage to Australia, London to Sydney via the Suez, a voyage of some six weeks. Altogether they had spent some three months at sea, and three months on land, with the longest stay in any one place being in Ireland, where they were for about five weeks. North America and Scotland/England accounted for about three and a half weeks each. They arrived home in the second half of October.

If John’s primary goal was to prevent Alice from marrying Richard Byrne, it would seem that he succeeded. A little under two years after they arrived back in Sydney, in August 1895, Alice married William Ross, a successful accountant some 11 years older than her. One wonders if that was her father’s plan all along. Dick married Elizabeth Gray, a Kiama girl, daughter of Irish immigrants, the same year. It would seem that both Alice and Dick had accepted that their lives were not meant to be together.

At least that was how it seemed. Over forty years later with their respective lives largely behind them, Alice and Dick found each other again. Both had lost their respective partners to illness. Perhaps they had been friends all through the forty five intervening years, or perhaps they had barely been aware of each other’s lives. Alice and William had moved to Mosman on the North Shore of Sydney Harbour and raised five daughters, while Richard and Elizabeth had lived in Drummoyne and had raised a family of seven children.

After her husband’s death in 1939 Alice went to live with one of her daughters, Ethel (Epp) in Northbridge, next door to my father. But during those dark days of loneliness and world war Alice somehow reconnected with Dick, whose wife died in 1941. In 1944 they finally married. Alice was 72, Dick 74. Alice’s 95 year old father, by then living in Manly, still disapproved, but this time Alice was not to be dissuaded. Her father died a year later. Sadly Dick also died in 1946 so their happiness was short lived. Alice lived on until 1962, when she died at the age of 90, a grand old lady of Mosman.

Just as Alice never managed to get Dick out of her mind, her father John, JCH, never got travel or the Old Country out of his mind. He was well and truly smitten by the travel bug. In 1910 when he was 62 he went with his wife Martha back to England to be there for the coronation of King George V, the grandson of Queen Victoria. He never wrote a book about that journey so my knowledge of it is sparse. Unexpectedly, Martha died on the return voyage. JCH married again after his return to Australia, to an English lady he had met on the ship, and they were happy together for fourteen years when she died. JCH, perhaps seeking comfort in travel, sailed again for England the following year, in 1926, and amazingly, while he was there, married a third time, before his return to Australia. That was the last time he would cross the globe. He was 78 years old.

Did Alice ever travel again? In 1945 she lost her father and a year later her husband Dick died. She was alone and bereaved in the big house in Mosman, with its amazing view over the spectacular harbour (see the note from my father at the end of this post). She had moved back there after she married Dick and she remained there until her death. In 1949, when she was 77 years old, her oldest daughter, Gertrude, who had married a clergyman, RB Robinson (Bradley Robinson), asked her if she would like to accompany them on another trip to England, and she agreed.

England was still recovering after a terrible war when they arrived on March 1, 1949 on the Orcades. What they did and where they went in the three months of their visit I am not sure. Did they travel to Ireland, to Alice’s father’s ancestral home? Did they travel north to the Highlands to visit the Ross relatives who had never left Scotland? As far as I know William Ross had never been to Scotland after his parents migrated to Australia in 1866. But The Highlands were strong in the hearts of his daughters and their families, and it may well have been that Gertrude wanted to see the land of her father’s family, Strathcarron, the valley of Ross-shire where her Scottish grandfather had grown up. Her husband Bradley Robinson also had Scottish roots, so Scotland may well have been on their itinerary. The ship that carried them back to Australia was the Strathaird, named for another Highland valley.

Did Alice have the same wanderlust as her father? Each time she went to England she was a companion to others who had planned the various trips for their own reasons and asked her to come too. Her father wanted to get her away from Richard Byrne. Perhaps her daughter, over fifty years later wanted to help her forget Richard Byrne, who had unexpectedly found his way back into her life, if only for a few short years. Her father succeeded in his aims, at least temporarily. Did Alice’s second trip, over fifty years later, help her to process her feelings and finally lay Dick Byrne to rest?

My father, Alice’s grandson, certainly seems to have inherited something of John Hickson’s love of travel. After he married in 1958 he departed with his young wife, my mother, for the Pacific Islands where they lived for seven years in Fiji. I was born there in 1961, the year before my great grandmother Alice Hickson-Ross-Byrne died. I came to Australia in 1964 as a three year old. When I was nine we departed by ship across the Pacific and the Atlantic for England, where we lived for the next three years, before completing our circumnavigation of the world around the Cape of Good Hope. Since then I have crossed the globe countless times, as have my parents and siblings.

Travel means different things for different people. Some love the journey for its own sake. For others it is a way to escape from harsh realities. Sometimes it is about searching for identity or purpose. We can only guess what it was for John Hickson, and his daughter Alice. For me it has had all these elements and many more.

The world is a different place now with air travel having shrunk the distance between Europe and Australia to an overnight affair. Thomas Cook and Sons are still offering their package holidays, but under very different conditions. And some of us are like John Christopher Hickson still wondering to which side of the world we belong.

Note from my father, Ian Holford, 9 August 2016

I have just enjoyed reading your blog on my grandmother and her travels. There are a couple of small corrections. In the para. beginning “Did Alice ever travel again”, my grandparents had moved from the big house in Mosman with the spectacular harbour view into a smaller house (75 Raglan St. named Ferrintosh) in the thirties.  I remember visiting them there as a child before my grandfather died in 1939. My grandfather Holford lived in the same street with my unmarried uncle (Hope’s father), and they used to visit each over with me tagging along. On one occasion I got bored with their conversation and quietly ran back to the other house without my grandfather’s knowledge. I was suitably scolded on his return.

My grandmother remained in the Raglan St. house after my grandfather died and during her two year marriage to Dick Byrne, and until she went to live with Aunty Ep sometime in the late fifties. As a teenager (1946-50), I used to ride my bike to Raglan St. and mow the lawns and weed the gardens. At that time the house had been divided into two flats. My grandmother was the first family member to buy a TV set, and we used to visit her on Saturday nights to watch TV. She must have died sometime during our latter years in Fiji as I don’t remember her funeral.

Missing home

In the southern autumn of 1893, a young Sydney girl, Alice Hickson, embarked with her father, John Christopher Hickson, on a journey around the world. They sailed on the Monowai out of Sydney on Monday 17th April. Sydney Harbour was as beautiful then as now, but there was no Harbour Bridge and no Opera House, and the population of Sydney, at 400,000, was only a tenth of what it is today. It was nevertheless Australia’s biggest city, a young vibrant place growing fast under the sunny blue skies of the great southland.


A photo featured on Reuben Goossens website

Alice grew up in a prosperous family. Her father was an Irish immigrant who had become a successful timber merchant, with mills in Nabiac on the north coast of NSW, as well as in Darling Harbour and later in Burwood. Her mother produced a whole stream of children, five boys and six girls in all, though one of the girls, Maud, died at age four, when Alice was ten years old. Alice was the oldest, the “big sister.” They lived in a succession of houses in her early childhood, but by the time she was twenty the place she had called home for at least half her life was The Grove, in Liverpool Street, Enfield. The family home had been named after the Hickson ancestral seat in Ireland. But Ireland was a land that Alice knew of only through her father’s stories, a far country whose mist covered mountains and wild rocky coast she longed to see. Alice’s mother’s mother was also Irish, but she had died when Alice was a toddler. Alice’s recollecion of her grandmother could hardly have been more than subliminal, heart memories of haunting Irish melodies as Mary sang her granddaughter to sleep.

Alice’s Irish heritage
Though Alice and all her siblings were Australian born her heritage was overwhelmingly Irish. Her father John Christopher Hickson (JCH) was the youngest of seven children born in County Kerry to Richard and Mary Hickson of Killorglin. By the time John Hickson was fifteen all but one of his siblings had left for Australia. Only his oldest brother William remained in Ireland, where he had married and started a family of his own. He was a whitesmith and lived in Sneem south west of Killorglin.

John’s mother died when he was about 15 and he found himself alone at home with his father. It would seem the two of them went then to live with William and his wife, Mary (Needham) and their two little children. But then in around 1865 William and Mary decided to migrate, not to Australia but to America, where most of Mary’s family had gone. Their ageing father, Richard, went with them. John found himself left alone in Ireland, seventeen years old.

The next five years of John Hickson’s life are obscure. What he did and who he knew and how he supported himself I have not been able to find out. All I really know for certain is that he arrived in Melbourne in 1870 on a ship called Caduceus. He had an older sister, Ellen, who was married and had settled in Melbourne and he may well have initially stayed with her. But the rest of his siblings lived in Sydney, and John soon decided that his future lay in New South Wales. Another sister, Kate, had married an Englishman named Hugh Breckenridge whose family were involved in the timber industry. Probably through those contacts John found work. Within two years he was married to Martha Watts and had started to make his mark as a timber merchant in a city where the building industry was in high gear.

William, however, who was the brother that John knew and loved best, was in America. How things were going for them there is uncertain, but John was sure it would be better for his brother and his young family if they came to Australia. Richard Hickson, their old father, had died and was buried in Boston. As far as John could see Australia offered more opportunities than America and he wanted William to come. There was room for William in the family business and John was able and willing sponsor them financially. By 1876 he had persuaded William and Mary to come with their seven children. They arrived in 1877, after a short sojourn back in Ireland.

Alice’s cousin Suzie Hickson
William and Mary arrived in Australia when Alice was only four. William, I believe, joined his younger brother’s timber business and he too appears to have done well out of it. William and Mary’s oldest daughter, Suzie, born in Ireland, raised in Boston, was 16 the year the family arrived and over the ensuing years alice came to love her dearly. Suzie, with all her knowledge of the wider world, was like a big sister to Alice.

In 1885, when Alice was 12, her cousin Suzie, who was by that time 23, married another Irish immigrant, a young man who had also come out from Kerry a few years before. His name was George Byrne and his family had been known to the Hicksons in Ireland. George and Suzie Byrne began to build a family. George had a background in merchandising and eventually became an executive in Australia’s biggest jam company, IXL.

Richard Byrne
Around 1892 George Byrne’s brother Richard, some ten years younger than him, also came out to Australia from Ireland. He almost certainly went to live with George and Suzie and their young family, and would soon have got to know Alice, Suzie’s young cousin. A romance ensued and it wasn’t long before it became clear that Richard and Alice were on the road toward matrimony.

This for some reason alarmed Alice’s father, and he expressly forbade the union. Alice was his first daughter and he appears to have had other plans for her. Richard had no money and an inauspicious background. There may have been bad feelings between there John and Richard’s parents back in Ireland, or it may have been simple class prejudice. Whatever is the truth, John would absolutely not allow a marriage between his daughter and this newcomer.

Richard (Dick) was though, by all reports, a lovely young man, with a cheerful and sunny personality. He captured Alice’s heart with his laughter and his smile. She was in love, and her father was worried. He came up with a plan to separate the young lovers – he would take his daughter away. She had always said she wanted to see Ireland, so her father proposed a trip to the old country. William’s wife Mary had a lot of relatives in the Boston area so he decided they should go via America, which John had until then, not seen.

John’s youngest son and Alice’s youngest brother, Richard, was newborn. It seems odd that John would leave his wife to care for the whole family and disappear off to the other end of the earth for six months. But that is exactly what happened. He was determined to prevent the proposal the he could see was coming, which he knew that Alice would almost certainly accept. So he booked a passage to America, and from there to Ireland. He planned to travel on to Scotland and England before returning to Australia via the Suez Canal later in the year.

Notes of Travel
John wrote about their experiences in a series of letters he sent to his second daughter, nineteen year old Edith, back in Sydney. After his return the letters were collected and published in book form, under the title, Notes of Travel, from Pacific to Atlantic. In the Preface the journey is introduced as follows:

The following Notes of Travel are the records of a hurried trip round the world taken during 1893 by myself and my eldest daughter… They were sent in the form of letters to my family while we were travelling, giving particulars of our journey, and the impressions made on us at the different places we visited… But my daughter Edith, to who they were addressed, handed them to the editor of our local weekly paper, “The Australian Courier,” where they appeared at intervals from June to December. J.C.Hickson, “The Grove,” Enfield, NSW, April 1894

“Hurried” is hardly how we would today describe a world journey that started in April and finished in October, but perhaps that is how John Hickson saw it, in a time when the pace of life was much slower. Another interpretation of the word, however, is that it was a trip taken in a hurry – without much planning or forethought. As John wondered how to deal with the prospect of a marriage between his daughter and someone he did not like, he suddenly came on the idea of a trip around the world with her. It was a highly unsuitable time, and I can imagine the response of his wife Martha when he suggested the idea. What are you thinking John? But her husband was a man of action and barely before they had talked about it the passage was booked and the tickets paid for. The next thing they knew they were on board.

The book that I have now in my hand is a fascinating account and gives some insight into John’s personality and interests. But what about the vibrant young lady who accompanied him, the twenty year old Alice Hickson? Amazingly, not once in the book does he mention his “eldest daughter’s” name, nor what was the purpose of their journey. In fact, there are only two references to Alice in the whole eighty pages, and in both she is referred to as “Miss Hickson” – a strangely formal way to write about his own daughter, especially considering he was writing home to family, where she was simply “Alice.”

The opening chapter describes the departure of the steamship Monowai from the Sydney docks en route to its first stop in New Zealand.

After the ladder was drawn in the passengers lined the wharf side of the vessel, speaking farewell words and taking a last look at the friends and loved ones who stood on points of vantage on the wharf; and as the good ship quietly crept from her berth into the stream, hundreds of goodbyes were exchanged, and until out of sight and hearing were continued by signs and waving of handkerchiefs. Some enthusiastic friend was noticed as the wharf vanished from sight, standing on a pile of timber frantically waving a handkerchief tied on the end of his stick.

I wondered as I read these words if that “enthusiastic friend” was the young handsome Irishman, Richard Byrne, who had so completely caught Alice’s heart. A picture comes to my mind of Alice – an attractive, fashionable young woman standing at the rail waving madly back with tears streaming down her face. What lay ahead? She knew that her father had decided they could never be married, and perhaps she had determined to try to focus on other things than Richard, but just at that moment the infatuation within her was a fire that she could not extinguish. He was still so close, so real. She wondered if she could ever lay aside the feelings she had for him.

He became smaller and smaller as the ship slipped further and further down the harbour, and then a headland came between them and he was gone from her sight. She turned and walked to the front of the ship, determined to look ahead and not back. There was a whole world to discover before her. She must try to be strong. She must try to forget. But the weeks at sea that lay ahead were not exactly full of distractions for the lovesick girl.

A few days out from Sydney, on the Southern Ocean between Australia and New Zealand, Alice is mentioned in a rather oblique way. John describes the various things happening on deck as people settle into the voyage.

There was for the steady quiet-going young people, deck quoits and shuffles, cards, chess and draughts tournaments; and for the livelier ladies and gentlemen, skipping, racing and jumping, there were potato races, wheelbarrow and sack races, tugs-of-war, sweeps instituted on the number if miles run in the 24 hours and any and everything to fill in the tedious hours and drive dull care away. Burwood (John’s home suburb in Sydney) was not badly represented there, and some of the prizes were pulled off by a Burwood young lady (Miss Hickson) and a well known athletic young gentleman (Mr Lambton).

It would seem from this that 20-year old Alice was one of the “livelier ladies” and one gets the feeling that Mr Lambton was the kind of “young gentleman” that John Hickson approved of, and the kind of distraction that he thought Alice needed. John writes a little more of Mr Lambton, who tragically died in America shortly after their arrival, dashing any hopes John might have had for him and Alice. Miss Hickson herself gets no more description.

The next, and only other time Alice is mentioned in the book is when the father and daughter are in the middle of the Atlantic, bound for Ireland and England. From San Francisco they have travelled by train across the great North American continent and in New York they have boarded the Germanic, a ship of the White Star line. According to John it has been a “very pleasant” crossing, but something about Alice’s demeanour seems to have been disturbing him. To his delight he finds in his cabin mate a person to whom he can unburden his soul. He is an Englishman returning home, and though apparently a diplomat, appears have a caring heart and a mind for verse.


The White Star line Germanic, from Wikipedia

We had a curious combination of passengers: admirals, counts, knights, actresses, and all sorts and conditions of men. My cabin mate happened to be a brother of Mr Rider Haggard, the novelist (who wrote King Solomon’s Mines), a very nice fellow and also gifted. He had been on diplomatic business at Panama for the British Government and was returning to his home in Dorsetshire. We had a very cordial invitation to visit him at his home and also at the Atheneum Club in London, both of which we were compelled to decline. During the passage he composed the following ditty for Miss Hickson, as a souvenir of the voyage on the Germanic…

John’s interest seems to be more in Mr Alfred Haggard and his well known author-brother than in his daughter. It is not the first time he has dropped names in his writings, having also mentioned RL Stevenson’s house which they had seen in Samoa. But Alfred seems far more interested and concerned for young Alice, and the poem that he penned gives more insight into the young lady and what she was going through than anything her father wrote. One wonders how distant the relationship between John and his daughter had become.

A homesick Australian lady
Haggard’s poem is entitled To an Australian Lady, a rather formal title considering that Alice was barely more than a girl. Alfred was a similar age to her father and seems to have taken a paternal interest in her. But he addressed her not as a girl, but as a “lady.”

I can imagine John and Alfred sitting together in their cabin in the evenings, talking about John’s downcast daughter. Alfred thinks he will write a poem to cheer her up. John thinks maybe it will help. He includes it in his letters home, perhaps because it is the only way he knows how to inform the family about what was happening for Alice, the pain she was going through. John knew that he was the cause of it. Perhaps Alice had written too, to her sisters or her mother if not to the whole family, but any letters she may have written have not been preserved to my knowledge. Had she been writing to Richard, or was she busy trying to repress the happy memories she had of him?

The opening verses of the poem are surely a reflection on the conversations Alfred had had with Alice, on the promenade decks and lounges of the Germanic. By this time they are three months out from Sydney, but she can think of nothing but home:

What? Does your heart sink
As onward you roam,
Thinking of dear ones
Staying at home?
Do you muse on your mother,
Far, far away,
Or sister or brother? Of children at play?

From the wide-spreading circles
Of this great ocean,
Where the grey clouds seem steady,
The waves are in motion,
Your thoughts fly, I fancy,
To shores far away,
To sun-shiny Sydney,
With deep-dented bay.

There the house is so busy
With life and with love,
Fair earth is around you-
Blue heaven above;
Girl friends come to cheer you,
And music and song
Raise your spirits and make, thus,
The days dance along.

Yes, truly all dull are
The days of the North.
If loved ones are absent
Then nothing has worth.
No wonder we languish,
If friends be not nigh.
Dark with night seems the ocean,
Dark with night is the sky.

After this expression of understanding and empathy Alfred tries to redirect Alice’s mind from the past and home to the days that lie ahead with all the new things that they will contain.

But be brave dearest maiden,
Remote is the strand
That with summer is golden;
Yet near is the land
Your fathers once trod on,
Near the boisterous seas,
When bravely they sallied
For antipodes

Mother England shall soon
Appear through the mist.
Her daughter returning,
By her breezes when kissed,
Shall quickly recover
Her hope and her strength;
And peaceful dwell there,
Resting at length.

This parent of nations
Her daughter will greet;
To you may her welcomes
Be tender and sweet.
And happy may time be
You pass thus “at home”
Ere you speed blithely back
Again on the foam.

Its interesting that he attempts to redefine Alice’s understanding of herself from a tanned young girl of the colonies to a returning daughter of Mother England. Did this make sense to Alice? How could he say she was returning to Mother England, a land she had never seen? Was he really expressing his own longing for the old country? Did he really think that he could comfort her with such words? And did he not realise that Alice and her father’s destination was Ireland before England, and if she had any “home” on this side of the world it was the “Emerald Isle” rather than old England. Yet he clearly sees England as the “parent of nations,” and believes that Alice will feel, when she arrives there that she has finally come home, and that there she will find rest for her soul, revival and refreshment. He continues:

And thus sanctified
By the kiss of her mouth,
Some love of the North
You shall take to the south.
You shall girdle the earth
With the steps of your feet.
And complete the great chain
As your loved ones you greet.

In your bright-gleaming home
In the Antipodes,
Your thoughts rarely dwell
On the toils of the seas;
Yet sometimes perusing
These lines that I write
When the afternoon’s hot,
Or silent the night,

Far removed from the crowd
And the heat and the panic,
You’ll admit you were bored
Upon the “Germanic.”
The men were all dull!
The women seemed frumps,
Your cabin was hot, you
Were deep in the dumps!

But one who was there
Bade you cheer up, be glad;
If the past seemed so happy,
The present so sad-
The future was rich
With joy and with blessing.
For least we enjoy
What we now are possessing.

Perchance this dull time
These grey lonely seas,
Later bring to your mind
Dear memories-
In your home and at rest
In a distant December
What now gives distress
You will gladly remember.

These words are his advice to Alice: forget the past, focus on now, the blessings of the days ahead. Make the most of the present and it will ease the pain of what has been left behind.

Alice was on a ship out in the middle of the Atlantic. She was sad and lonely. She thought back to everyone back home and wondered what they were doing. They seemed so far away. Could the future really be as rich as this man was saying?

Two days after he gave this little poem to Alice, they arrived at Queenstown, a port on the south coast of Ireland near Cork. Queenstown is called Cobh nowadays. It was here that John Hickson and his daughter disembarked before travelling over the hills to Kerry, the land of John’s birth. Could Alice find anything of herself in this place?

Queenstown-Old-Postcard 1900

A postcard from the Wikipedia article on Cobh (Queenstown)

Australian landfall, March 1855

The Caesar sailed south to Cape Town and then east across the Roaring Forties (latitude 40 degrees south), which seemed not to be roaring much that particular year, according to Middendorf’s description. Unlike the 10 day storm that we experienced crossing the Southern Ocean in the 1970s, the passengers of the Caesar apparently had a very pleasant crossing. Also unlike us so many years later on the Ellinis, the little German sailing ship appears not to have stopped in Western Australia: Perth was just a tiny colonial outpost in the 1850s. The Caesar sailed on across the Great Australian Bight and headed for Bass Strait, the stretch of sea between Tasmania and the Australian mainland. Ernst Middendorf’s description of the first sightings of Australia convey the excitement of landfall after months at sea:

Finally we reached the longitude of the mainland and steered for Bass Strait. As we neared the entrance, however, the wind was blowing from the strait and the Captain decided to go around Van Diemen’s Land. That was a further long journey; we had either east winds or calm the whole time. The air coming from the land carried a whiff of vegetation to us, and I often stood for hours at a time on the deck, just to catch this wonderful peat-like smell that suggested the nearness of land, because I was getting dreadfully weary of this story at the end. On Friday the 2nd of March, after it had been misty for several days, heavy rain fell. Towards evening it ceased and I stood on the deck. The curtain of cloud seemed to slowly lift, and far off on the horizon the steep high mountains of the Island of Van Diemen’s Land climbed in a blue line out of the sea. The air was very clear and everyone could see land. Nonetheless, it took a long time before the people believed it. It seemed to many just not possible that they now really had before their eyes what they had for so many days longed for. In the meantime the news went from mouth to mouth and the deck was soon full of people who wanted to establish for themselves the comforting conviction that “the whole world has not actually been turned into water”. The sick came crawling out, or had themselves carried, and on all the convalescents it worked better, of course, than all the half-mouldy pills in my poor pharmacy.

The land that we had seen was the south coast of the island. Towards evening it was out of sight again and we traversed back and forth with unfavourable winds for several more days without making any substantial headway, as the ship was in very bad shape. Finally, on the morning of the 9th, with good winds, we approached the mainland of Australia. The air was very dense and when we saw the high coast, we were already very near it. A long, high mountain range, which stretched out in the south into flat running foothills, lay in view of the eager immigrant. Everyone was on deck. They put on their Sunday clothes and mutually congratulated each other. Gradually the contours of the heights stood out more clearly, one could distinguish the trees that decked the peaks, and in the background one could see a high mountain whose sharp apex was shrouded in haze. We sailed by some low green foothills only a small distance away.

To Australia by sail in the 1850s

In 1973, when I was 12, we sailed from England to Australia on a migrant ship, the Ellinis, of Chandris Lines. We were not migrants, rather returning Australians, but there were many migrants travelling with us. We departed Southampton and sailed south to Cape Town, across the roaring forties to Perth, and then around the bottom of Australia to Melbourne and Sydney. The voyage took a little over four weeks and we travelled mostly in relative comfort, despite an extremely rough 10 day crossing of the Indian Ocean. We had a six birth cabin divided into two rooms. Our luggage was stored in the hold. We ate meals in the dining room. There was ample space to wander on the promenade and aft decks, and there was plenty to entertain us. We had cause to complain, of course, as travellers always do, when the weather got rough and the desalination plant broke down and our drinking water became brackish. But I remember the voyage with nostalgia. It was an exciting journey for a 12 year old boy.

The Ellinis arrives in Sydney 1978.

The Ellinis arrives in Sydney 1978.

A number of our ancestors made the voyage to Australia in the 1800s when sailing ships were still the main form of transport. The Fischer family left Hamburg in 1854 and Johann Holtorf in 1856. Others left from various ports in England in the 1870s, but by then steam was taking over. By the time my grandfather, George Simmonds, left England in 1923 ships were beginning to resemble the passenger liners that we travelled on in my childhood, between Fiji and Australia, and later between Australia and England.


Migrant ship (the Artemisia) mid nineteenth century

The conditions on board sailing ships in the 1850s were harsh. Most passengers travelled in a part of the ship called “steerage” between the upper deck and the cargo hold. Since these ships were built for cargo and not passengers this ‘tween decks area was not designed for accommodation, but was converted for the purpose. However, unlike our experience on the Ellinis, passengers did not have their own cabin, but were all crowded into one large room that acted as dormitory, dining room and common room. Until 1852 men and women were all accommodated together, but later men were accommodated separately from the women and children.

When the sea was stormy and rough the hatches were battened down and passengers could not get up into the open. Toilets were usually on the upper deck, about one for every hundred passengers. In rough conditions they coul not easily be accesses and a bucket in steerage had to suffice. These could easily be overturned; the smell could be overpowering, from vomit and human waste. Rats were common. Sea water seeped in through hatches so it was damp below deck. It was also dark because there were no windows and dim lanterns hanging from the deck beams provided the only light. Ventilation was poor.

On the voyage to Australia these conditions needed to be endured not for four weeks but for four months. Bunks were stacked on top of one another, each person had an area measuring about 0.5 x 2 metres. There were no tables or chairs, and the aisles were crowded with migrants luggage. Though German ships provided meals for their steerage passengers (unlike British ships on the transatlantic route), preservation of food was difficult and meals were boring and monotonous. The menu consisted of salt meat and salt bacon, herrings, sauerkraut, potatoes, beans and peas, in various combinations. Passengers had to collect their food from the galley and take it back to steerage to eat.

Between decks at mealtime

With such horrendous conditions it is no surprise that sickness was rife. As Maggie Blanck says on her very informative website, “because of the close quarters in which they lived, passengers often suffered from illnesses like trench mouth, body ulcers, and lice. Conditions were frightful. Immigrant ships were recognized by the smell…” Of course illness and premature death were common on land too on those days, so the expectations of travelers was not high, but the hardness of those four months cannot be underestimated, even if people were tougher than they are now. So much for the romance of sail.

Our Fischer family’s voyage was documented by the ship’s doctor, Ernst Middendorf. Here is an excerpt by him describing the conditions. He, of course, shared a cabin with the captain and first mate, and did not share his accommodation with the passengers, of whom he clearly had a fairly low opinion. I try to imagine gottfried and Viktoria Fischer and their four children in the midst of all this:

In the steerage everything ran its regular course from one day to the other, i.e. morning, grumbling over the coffee; noon, over the under-cooked beans or too-small portions of meat; and evening, over the stinking tea water; besieging of the galley, cursing of the cooks, reciprocal bickering and envy if ever anybody got something from the cabin, and if these people just happened to have peace among themselves, then complaining about the ship’s command and myself. In addition, filth and vermin, the stink and clamour of children, and complete indolence in the face of every gentle admonishment about cleanliness -they only stirred themselves if forced to.
AAZ no.75 24 Sep 1855, p.298

Life on board was not all misery, of course, as Dr Middendorf reminds us in his description of a warm evening in the vicinity of Tenerife: “the wind was mild and cooling, like a German June evening. We had our first southern night. The moon broke through the light cloud and threw a silver spotlight on the gently moving water. Our people danced noisily to the music of a flute…” Another picture from Maggie Land Blanck’s website, captures life in steerage on board another emigrant ship, the Indus, sailing from London to Brisbane. The picture is from an emigrant magazine, and in the middle of the crowd there is “a tall thin sinewy Irishman… dancing a jig to the tune of a violin.” Even in harsh conditions people make their own entertainment. A description of this scene by the artist follows.

Passengers entertain themselves

Passengers entertain themselves

Forward between decks were the quarters of the bachelor emigrants. Here a tall thin sinewy Irishman was dancing a jig to the tune of a violin, the scraping of which combined, with the mewing of a litter of black kittens, and the laughter of the audience, to make a Babel of discordant sounds. The berths in this department were placed in a double row, with a zinc pail, and at times a looking-glass at the head of each. (The Graphic, June 29, 1872)

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